There is a community of the spirit.
Join it and feel the delight
Of walking in the noisy street,
And being the noise.”
In January 1981 I took over as the Director of the Ashtanga Yoga Nilayam in Encinitas. I quit my job at the hospital so I could devote myself to teaching yoga full time. Cathy and I had started living together a few months earlier and decided we would get married in June. Her income as a waitress and my meager earnings as a yoga teacher were just enough to get by. Every three months I would send ten percent of my earnings to Guruji, as promised.
Practicing now without a teacher I longed to go to India to see Guruji and further my studies with him, but it was difficult to save any money. When Cathy and I got married in June, we spent a total of about $200 dollars on the wedding—making our own wedding cake, providing the food with the help of family and friends, and getting married in our front yard. Even so, it was a beautiful wedding. Afterwards we took a budget honeymoon, backpacking in Yosemite.
Cathy knew how important it was for me to take this trip to India, and over the next six months we were able to scrape up enough money for me to go. On the day before my departure in January, Cathy came to me with a look of terror in her eyes.
“What’s wrong?’ I asked.
“I’m pregnant,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “everything will be okay.”
She looked at me skeptically.
The next day I left for India, trying not to let my uncertainty about our future dampen my enthusiasm for the trip. Thirty-six hours after leaving Los Angeles I landed in Bombay at 2am. My experience with airports up until this time was pretty similar—a fairly sterile environment of air conditioning, linoleum floors, and fluorescent lights. When I stepped off the plane into the Bombay airport the first thing that hit me was the heat and humidity, along with the overwhelming smell of unwashed humanity. Sleep deprivation and many hours spent in my cramped economy seat added to the surreal quality of the experience. I staggered down to retrieve my luggage and then made my way to the customs line.
The customs agent asked me to open my bag. I was still very much into my sprouting routine so I had brought my sprouting tray along with zip lock bags filled with alfalfa seeds, mung beans, and adzuki beans. As the custom agent went through my bag, he found my sprouting materials and began to laugh.
“You bring dal to India?” he inquired as he lifted my bag of mung beans to show his colleagues. They all laughed as well and I shrugged my shoulders as if to say, “Excuse me for being a stupid American.”
Once I made it through customs I had to find a way to get from the international terminal to the domestic terminal, which was ten kilometers away. As I walked out of the terminal, I was besieged by hundreds of Indians, all wanting to be my new best friend. “Taxi? Hotel? Where you going sir?” All of the voices came at me at once and I felt completely overwhelmed. “Domestic airport?” I managed to say. A young man grabbed my bag, saying, “You come. Bus is there!” I followed him through the crowd, hoping he had understood. We made it to a bus and he tossed my luggage to a boy on top. Not having any rupees yet, I handed him a dollar and said thank you. He smiled broadly and said, “Welcome sir.”
As it turned out he had led me to the right bus. I squeezed inside, hoping my luggage would be okay on the roof, and off we went in the early morning darkness. On the way to the domestic airport we traveled along a stretch of road that was lined with hundreds of little burlap tents where people were living. The stench of human excrement was overpowering. It was hard to imagine people living in such primitive conditions. I was definitely not in Kansas any more!
When we arrived at the domestic airport my luggage was retrieved off the roof of the bus. This was a much smaller airport and I was easily able to find the way to my connecting flight to Bangalore. An hour later I landed at the Bangalore airport, which was small and fairly peaceful. I exchanged some dollars for rupees and inquired about the best way to get to Mysore. There was a bus, I was told, every half hour, but first I would have to take a taxi to the bus station. As part of my initiation to India, I was overcharged for my taxi ride to the bus station, paying ten dollars when I should have paid one.
Once at the bus station I inquired about the bus to Mysore. The cost was ten rupees (about 75 cents) and the ticket seller pointed out the appropriate bus. I climbed on and found a seat for the 100-mile trip to Mysore. People kept getting on the bus until there were no more seats, and continued to get on until there was no room to stand either. When the driver was convinced that the bus was full he roared off towards the highway.
The Bangalore to Mysore highway was a narrow, two-lane road that was filled with all sorts of traffic—other buses, trucks, cars, auto rickshaws, scooters, bicycles, bullock carts, cows, goats, pigs, and pedestrians. The bus driver used his horn liberally to warn others of his approach. Buses coming in the opposite direction seemed to play a game of chicken with our driver, coming straight for us while passing another vehicle, only to turn aside at the last possible moment before impact.
Four hours later I arrived, somewhat shaken, at the bus station in Mysore. Brad and Gary had recommended a hotel called the Kaveri Lodge, which was centrally located. I asked one of the locals for directions and he pointed west. “This way?” I asked and pointed at the street in front of me. His response to this was the famous Indian head waggle, which could mean either yes, no, maybe, or I don’t know. After walking several blocks in what I thought might be the right direction, I stopped and asked directions again from a young man, “Kaveri Lodge?” He pointed to a sign almost right above my head, which read “Kaveri Lodge “with an arrow pointing to the left.
If it had been rated on the star system, the Kaveri Lodge might have received one star. It was cheap (about a dollar a day), had running water (sometimes), hot water (rarely), electricity (most of the time), clean sheets (once upon a time), and giant cockroaches (all of the time). Exhausted from the trip, I lay down on the bed and soon drifted into a fitful sleep. When I awakened a few hours later it was dark and I was completely disoriented. After establishing that I was indeed in India I got up and took a cold bucket bath then put on some clean clothes and went downstairs. The receptionist greeted me and inquired if he could be of help. I asked for directions to the Ashtanga Yoga Nilayam. Yoga students had stayed there before so he was familiar with this scenario.
The yoga shala was only about a mile away and fairly easy to find. When I arrived Guruji and Amma were sitting on the front porch with Amma;s brother Vishvanath Shastri, enjoying the relative coolness of a January evening (it is never that cool in South India). They greeted me warmly and asked when I had arrived. I told them I had come just a few hours back. “You take some food?” Guruji asked. I nodded and Amma disappeared into the house for a minute then returned bearing a stainless steel plate. She smiled and handed it to me. “This is one sweet,” Guruji said, “kesari bath.”
I stared at the plate for a minute, not knowing quite how I was supposed to eat this since I didn’t have a utensil. By the time I figured out that in India people eat with their fingers, Amma had brought me a spoon. Guruji explained that it was soji (cream of wheat) with ghee, sugar, cashews, raisins, and spices. It was delicious. “You like?” Guruji asked. When I nodded Guruji laughed and said, “Amma’s kesari bath is best.” Not having anything to compare it to, I could only agree.
Guruji asked where I was staying and I told him the Kaveri Lodge. “Is good place,” he said, “many yoga students stay there.” I agreed that it was a good place (I didn’t mention the cockroaches) and asked what time I should come for yoga class the next day. “Yes, you come six o’clock.” That being settled, I thanked Amma for the food and walked back to my hotel.
The time change in Mysore from California was twelve and a half hours. I mostly tossed and turned all night. At about 5am I began to hear the rather eerie but beautiful sound of Muslims calling to Allah. Half an hour later the Hindus began with their chanting of mantras and bhajans. Soon after this came a loud banging noise. I looked down on the street and saw a young man with a bullock cart beating a bright red 50 gallon metal drum with a stick and loudly announcing that he had kerosene for sale.
India was coming to life so I figured it was time for me to come to life as well. There was no hot water, so I took a cold bucket bath and headed off to Guruji’s. The temperature was still cool, and in the early morning light I saw many Indian men huddled around cow dung fires, drinking chai and smoking beedis. The locals were friendly and very curious about me, since westerners were still fairly rare in Mysore. There were lots of inquiries of “What is your name?” and “What is your country?”
When I arrived at Guruji”s his Indian students were just finishing their practice. It was mostly middle-aged men who were standing around talking and laughing with Guruji. Guruji greeted me and gestured for me to come in and begin my practice. There were two other westerners present, a woman who appeared to be in her mid forties and a girl who looked about 19. Once the Indian students cleared out it became very quiet in the yoga shala and Guruji assumed a more serious demeanor. He mostly sat on his stool and watched us, grunting at times. Occasionally he would get up and adjust one of us in a posture. I felt extremely jet lagged and tired and it was a struggle just to get through the first series.
After class I chatted with the other westerners who introduced themselves as Priscilla and Melissa. They were mother and daughter from Maui who had been in Mysore for 11 months with another daughter, Heather, who was 16. Heather broke her neck in a diving accident on Maui a few years before and had been confined to a wheelchair ever since. They had met Guruji in Maui in 1980 and he encouraged them to come to Mysore so he could work with Heather. Guruji would work privately with Heather every day after the other western students were finished. She had been making some slow but steady progress over the past 11 months. I sat and watched Guruji work with her that first day. He would begin with her on her back and would stretch her legs in all directions, then sit her up and help her with some seated poses and some breathing exercises. At the end he would stand her up in samasthitih for as long as possible. For the standing part, Guruji called me over to help stabilize Heather’s feet and lower legs while he supported her hips and torso.
After class, Priscilla invited me over for breakfast. They were renting a house half a block from Guruji’s, so it was very convenient. As I entered their home I saw a large Indian woman in the kitchen, sweating over a small kerosene stove. Priscilla introduced me to “Philomena”, whom she had hired to cook, clean, and help take care of Heather. Philomena was preparing a traditional south Indian breakfast of dosas (Indian pancakes), sambar, (Spicy soup) and coconut chutney. As a filler for the dosas was a spicy mixture of potato and onion. When you put it all together it was a “Mysore masala dosa.” I was famished and Philomena took great joy in seeing how many dosas I could consume. It was delicious and extremely filling. Afterwards it was all I could do to stagger back to my hotel for a nap.
I settled into a routine of getting up at 5am, hoping for hot water. After my bath I would walk down to my favorite chai stall on the double road for a little jolt of caffeine. The chai was served in small stainless steel cups, and it took a little practice to drink it without burning my fingers or my lips. There was quite a bit of activity in the streets in spite of the early hour. Some of the street vendors were beginning to set up their little stalls and women were out in the road gathering piles of cow dung by hand, which they would pat into pie shapes and slap on walls or trees to dry.
It took about 20 minutes to get to Guruji’s and I timed my arrival precisely at 6am since I knew that promptness was important to him. The Indian students always greeted me warmly and asked how I was enjoying Mysore. They all seemed to have a lot of civic pride, so I would lavishly praise the climate, the people, the food, and the culture. Guruji soon moved me on from my first series practice to the second series and by my third week I was doing the third series. The format of the third series then was quite a bit longer than the current one. Sometimes it would take me nearly three hours to do the practice. Priscilla and Melissa would finish their practice in an hour and a half, so for the next hour it would be just Guruji and me. Sometimes he would sit on the floor and lean against the wall, occasionally falling asleep. He always had the uncanny ability to wake up just in time to adjust me in my most dreaded poses—viparita salabhasana and rajakapotasana, a couple of intense backbends that both required the union of my feet with my head.
Backbends have always been my most challenging poses and Guruji was determined to change that. He was quite strong in his assistance. Sometimes during the adjustments I would hear a loud buzzing noise and everything in the room would get dark, as if I was about to lose consciousness. Meanwhile, Guruji would be encouraging me, “Free breathing you do. Breathing is not correct—this is fearing breathing!” Just as I was about to lose consciousness, Guruji would release me from his grip and mutter something about me being a “Very stiff man.” “Yes, Guruji,” I would agree, “very stiff.”
At the end of those long and excruciating practices I would lay for a long time in savasana, feeling a great unraveling process occurring within. I could feel little knots of pain bubbling up towards the surface and floating away. Sometimes there would be deep, cleansing tears. At some point, Amma would poke her head into the room and say, “Teem? Coffee?” I would slowly get to my feet and answer, “Yes, Amma, coffee.” Then I would walk around to the front of the house and come into the sitting room to have coffee with Guruji. He would chat about this and that in his limited English. Sometimes he would ask me about the other students in Encinitas and Maui, or complain about how expensive everything was getting in India, “Long time back—10kgs rice for one rupee.”
Occasionally I would ask him a question about yoga and he would launch into a recitation of some classic work like the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, or Yoga Sutras, or tell stories from the Ramayana or Mahabharata. He would first chant in Sanskrit and then try to translate for me. It was remarkable to realize how many of these texts he had committed to memory.
After the coffee I would venture out into the streets and walk back to my hotel. On some days I would feel absolutely transparent—all of the sights, sounds and smells of India were washing right through me, as if there was no longer any fixed entity inside that I could identify as “me.” Usually I would stop at my favorite coconut stand. The coconut walla would deftly chop away enough of the husk of the coconut to reach the shell, then make a small incision and insert a straw. With a flourish he would hand it to me and I would give him one rupee, which at the time was worth about a dime. After finishing the coconut water I would hand it back to the walla, and he would cut it in half with his machete. He would then slice off a small piece of the husk, which I would use to scoop out the immature meat of the coconut inside the shell. This “spoon meat” was juicy and delicious, as well as very nourishing. Next stop was usually the banana walla for a dozen of the small, but very sweet and delicious bananas that Guruji liked best—cost of the bananas, three rupees. The tricky thing about the bananas was that if I didn’t eat them all and tried to store them in my hotel room, the monkeys would always find a way to get in and steal them.
Priscilla and Melissa had been in Mysore for almost a year and were dying to get out of town for a while. They asked if I would be willing to stay with Heather for a couple of weeks while they took a trip to Sri Lanka. My responsibility to Heather would just be to provide companionship. Philomena would take care of her other needs. Sounded like a pretty easy gig. I accepted and moved out of the Kaveri lodge so I could stay with Heather. She was a pleasant and intelligent companion, a good scrabble player, and I had free rent for fifteen days—a good thing with the meager funds I had at my disposal.
Early in February, an American couple showed up at the yoga shala. One of them was Norman Allen, who had been Guruji’s first American student. Norman met Manju in 1972 at a yoga demonstration in Pondicherry. Amazed at Manju’s proficiency at yoga, Norman asked him where he had learned. Manju told him of his father in Mysore, but added that he didn’t teach westerners. Undaunted, Norman soon showed up on Guruji’s doorstep asking if he would teach him. Initially Guruji refused. Norman did not give up that easily, however. Every day he would show up at the yoga shala and watch Guruji’s students practice. One day Norman had the audacity to begin to practice along with the Indian students. Guruji admired his perseverance and finally began to teach him.
Norman ended up spending the next four years in Mysore studying yoga with Guruji. He enrolled in the University of Mysore, obtained a master’s degree in geography, learned to speak Kannada and lived like a native, renting a small apartment from Guruji, He left Mysore in 1976.and settled in New York City.
Now Norman was back for the first time since then. He was with his girlfriend, Purna. They were both lovely, interesting people, and Norman was a wealth of information about Mysore and the surrounding area—he even told me with a conspiratorial wink that if I needed it, I could get ganja from the cucumber man at the main market. I had been the only student in the foreigner’s class since Priscilla and Melissa left and it was nice to have a couple of more bodies in class to occupy Guruji’s time and attention.
During Norman and Purna’s stay in Mysore there was a function held at the Lion’s club in Mysore to honor Guruji for his contributions to the community through his work as a yoga teacher. Many of the locals had studied yoga with Guruji over the years, either at his home in Lakshmi Puram, or during his tenure at the Sanskrit College. Some students had been referred to Guruji by their physicians and he had successfully treated cases of asthma, diabetes, polio, high blood pressure, etc. Norman, Purna, and I were informed that we would be part of a yoga demonstration.
Never having been involved in an Indian function, I was concerned when we were still waiting in front of Guruji’s house for our driver at three o’clock. The event was supposed to begin at three. I later came to realize that the timings for all Indian functions are always approximate. No one was overly concerned when the driver finally showed up at three thirty. The event began with speeches made by various officers of the Lion’s Club, all in Kannada. Then Guruji delivered a long talk about yoga, also in Kannada. Next came several yoga demonstrations. First all of Guruji’s young, male Indian students demonstrated suryanamaskara and standing poses. Next Guruji’s female Indian students demonstrated the sitting poses of the primary series. Norman and Purna then gave a beautiful, synchronized demonstration of the entire intermediate series.
Finally, it was my turn to take center stage. Guruji stood next to me and led me through the entire advanced A series at rather breakneck speed. He would say the name of the asana and count me through the vinyasa. My job was to stay with his count, do the right pose, and do it correctly. I had just turned thirty-one and was probably in the best shape of my life—a good thing considering how Guruji was putting me through my paces. The irony of the situation was not lost on me—that a westerner was demonstrating yoga to an Indian audience. There were probably 300 Indians in attendance, and they roared their approval at the conclusion of the demonstration. Norman, Purna, and I all received flower garlands at the end of the performance and many Indians came forward to shake my hand and make comments like, “Not in this lifetime will I do such asanas, but, with God’s grace, maybe in my next life.” Guruji said to me that when I was doing Trivikramasana (standing split) there was a collective gasp from the audience as if I was embodying the God Trivikrama, himself. I tried not to let it go to my head.
Norman told me about an old friend of his, Swami Nirmilananda, who had an ashram in the B. R. Hills, about three hours by bus from Mysore. The Swami had a pet deer named Bambi that he was quite fond of and Norman had arranged through the curator of the Mysore Zoo to have a male deer taken to the ashram to serve as a mate. One thing I was learning about India is that it is a place where even the best made plans often go awry. The deer that was taken to mate with Bambi turned out to be another female, so Norman had to arrange a second deer transport.
By the time the second deer expedition had been arranged, Norman and Purna had left Mysore, but he had arranged for Priscilla and myself to accompany the deer to Swami Nirmilananda’s ashram. Priscilla went to the market and purchased some fresh fruits and vegetables to take to the Swami since his ashram was fairly remote and he didn’t have access to a lot of fresh produce. We road in the back of the truck with the deer for three hours on the bouncy, winding road up to the B.R. Hills. Norman had told us that the Swami had taken a vow of silence many years earlier, and we were wondering how we would communicate.
When we arrived at the ashram, one of the Swami’s assistants greeted us, took the food we had brought, and showed us to our lodgings. He explained that we were invited to an afternoon tea and meditation with the Swami, who would then personally prepare our dinner. At four o’clock a bell was rung to announce that the tea was ready and we went to meet the Swami. Swami Nirmilananda greeted us warmly. He didn’t speak but made vocal inflections that got his point across. He appeared to be in his mid sixties, with short white hair and a beard and a dazzling smile contrasted by his dark and lustrous skin. The Swami was very well traveled and fluent in several languages. He communicated with us by writing on a note pad in English. After we had our tea, we sat in meditation with the Swami for half an hour. He exuded a great sense of tranquility and happiness. Afterwards, the Swami sat with us and offered some wisdom via his notepad—things like, “Buddha was not a Buddhist,” and “Christ was not a Christian.”
Around seven o’clock the dinner bell was rung. The Swami took great pleasure in serving the food himself, writing “In India the guest is God.” He was an excellent cook and had even baked some whole wheat bread—a real rarity in India. The Swami kept insisting that we take more food, but finally I could eat no more and said “Saku!” a Kannada word that means “enough”. The Swami told me he would arrange for a boy to lead me for a walk into the forest the next morning. We thanked the Swami profusely and bid him good night.
The next morning the bell rang a seven o’clock, alerting us that our tea was ready. Again, after our tea, we had a short meditation with the Swami. He then introduced me to the boy, Babu, that would be my guide in the forest. The Swami said that Babu would take me to an ancient banyan tree that was worshipped as a living embodiment of Lord Shiva. He explained that we were in elephant country and that there were leopards and tigers in the area as well. The Swami assured me that as long as I stayed with Babu, I would be in no danger.
The prospect of seeing wild elephants was exciting. I was told that it was rare to see a leopard or tiger because they were very shy animals. Babu and I followed a trail into the forest and came across many piles of elephant dung. We followed the trail for a couple of miles until we came to a giant banyan tree. The tree was at least a thousand years old and was enormous. At the base of it were hundreds of smooth, dark stones marked with the tripundra—the three lines of ash that symbolized Lord Shiva. I sat under the tree meditating for a while and then sang some chants I knew to Shiva. Babu then led me back to the ashram. On the way we occasionally heard crashing in the brush that indicated the presence of a large animal, but, regretfully I didn’t see any elephants.
After lunch we said our goodbyes and thanked Swami Nirmilananda for his gracious hospitality. As a parting gift he gave me a small book he had written in English called To Live to Benefit Mankind. It is a book I still have and its message is simple but profound—if you live a life of service you will be happy. Of all the people I have met in my life, I would say that Swami Nirmilananda was one of the most enlightened. Sadly, he passed away a few years back.
When Priscilla and Melissa returned at the end of February I needed to find another place to stay. Guruji offered to let me stay in a small room in his house. This room was used for many things. It was Guruji’s office, the changing room for the yoga students, and a storage place for grain and dal. I was so honored that Guruji would offer the room that I accepted immediately. I still had a month to go in Mysore and was running out of money. Guruji seemed to know this somehow and didn’t charge me any rent.
Living with Guruji and his family was a unique experience. I would get up about 4:30 and see Guruji seated on his deerskin in the upstairs sitting room, doing pranayama. Afterwards he would make a small wood fire to heat the water in the cistern because he knew I liked to take a hot bucket bath. After Guruji finished teaching at around nine o’clock he would bathe and do his puja. Afterwards he would do his own laundry by hand. Amma was often in the kitchen, cooking and singing.
Meanwhile, I was starving as I sat in my room savoring all of the delicious smells coming from Amma’s kitchen. Sometimes Guruji wouldn’t eat his first meal of the day until two in the afternoon. Not being a Brahmin, I wasn’t allowed to take my food with the family. Instead, my meals were brought to my room, usually by Guruji’s grandchildren, Sharmi and Sharath, who would sit and chat with me while I ate. Dinner often didn’t happen until nine o’clock., and on some days I stuggled to stay awake long enough to eat. Eventually I figured out that I could wander down the street in the morning at about ten and show up at Priscilla’s house right about when I knew they would be having breakfast. Philomena was always happy to feed me.
As the month of March progressed the weather got hotter and hotter. During the day it was well over a hundred degrees, and at night it would only cool down to about ninety. There was no air conditioning and my second floor room was stifling. Some nights I slept on the roof. One of the things Norman had suggested to beat the heat was to take an overnight trip to Ooty, a hill station at an elevation of 7,000 feet located three hours by bus from Mysore. One Friday after practice I boarded the red bus for Ooty and headed south. The Ooty road took us through Bandipur and Mudamali, two national parks that sat side by side—one in Karnaataka State in one in Tamil Nadu. Norman had suggested getting off the bus in Bandipur and walking ten miles through the forest to the next bus stop in Mudamali. The parks were wildlife preserves and were home to elephants, tigers, leopards, sloth bears, bison, elk, deer, monkeys, wild boar and dogs and many other creatures. I thought I might try that walk on the way back if I was feeling particularly adventurous.
Just before the bus began its ascent up into the Nilgiri (blue) Mountains, the driver stopped at a small temple and a priest boarded. He approached each passenger and offered us some blessed water. The passenger would take a ladle full of water in cupped hands, take a sip and toss the rest of it over their heads. Then they would place a one rupee coin onto the priest’s tray. I performed the procedure like everyone else. Curious about what was going on, I asked my seatmate what was happening. “The people are praying for safe passage up the mountain,” he said with great solemnity.
Once we began our ascent up the steep, narrow, winding road I realized he wasn’t kidding. When another red bus came from the opposite direction there were only a couple of inches of clearance as the buses passed each other. There was no guardrail, the drop off was sheer, the tires of the bus were almost bald and the brakes were only so-so. I kept looking over the side to see if there were any signs of crashed buses or cars below, and was reassured to some extent to see that there was no sign of wreckage. “These guys must know what they are doing,” I thought.
Ooty was a charming town that had been favored by the British during colonial times to escape the “bloody” tropical heat. There were tea and coffee plantations, a botanical garden, and a YWCA where I spent the night. It was refreshingly cool, clean and very civilized in a British sort of way. On the way home I opted not to take the solo walk through the forest, thinking of my pregnant wife at home and how distressed she would be if I were trampled by a bull elephant or eaten by a tiger.
It was so hot now that I became obsessed with cooling off. There was a public swimming pool just off the double road that I tried out one day. Lots of Indian children were playing in the pool. The water looked so inviting that I immediately dove in. As I did I had the distinct sensation of microscopic creatures entering every orifice of my body. There wasn’t even a hint of chlorine in the pool. Within a few hours I was deathly ill with dysentery. I was unable to keep anything down for two days as everything went straight through me. It lasted only about 48 hours and then I felt fine.
The next time I felt like a swim I took an auto rickshaw out to the Lalitha Mahal Palace on the eastern outskirts of town to try out their pool. The Lalitha Mahal had been the Maharaja’s summer palace back in the heyday of the Raj. Now it was a “luxury” hotel that had seen better days. The Lalitha Mahal was designed by an Italian architect and had lots of columns and domes. There was a massive dining room that was quite ornate where you could order a Mysore Silver Thali—a traditional south Indian meal served in real silver bowls. It cost ten times as much as a thali meal anywhere else in the city, but included live music—bansuri (bamboo flute) and tabla. Best of all there was a swimming pool that was small but well maintained and clean, quiet and beautifully landscaped. There was also a clay tennis court, but the thought of playing in the heat was not very appealing.
I noticed a group of other westerners at the pool and said hello. They were quite friendly so I stopped to have a chat. It turned out that they were all actors and were in Mysore filming some scenes for a BBC production of The Jewel in the Crown, a Masterpiece Theater production based on the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. The Jewel in the Crown was the title of the first of the four books—the jewel, of course, was India and the crown was the British Empire. The two actors that I ended up speaking to at length were Tim Piggot Smith and Art Malik. As it turned out they were the two male leads. Art played the tragic Indian hero, Hari Kumar, who was unjustly accused of murdering his British lover. Tim played the sadistic, rascist police inspector who was out to get him.
They were both very curious about yoga and inquired about class times and location. I gave them directions to Guruji’s and they showed up the next morning at 6am. Both Art and Tim were very stiff and Guruji was none too gentle with them. Art came just that once and created quite a stir in the household. He was a handsome Pakistani and Guruji’s daughter, Sarasvati, seemed a bit smitten. Tim came several times and we began to develop a friendship. He mentioned that the casting director was looking for westerners to be used as extras in crowd scenes. I went and applied for the job and was told that they needed someone to portray a British soldier. At the time I had very long hair and a beard, but I decided to submit to a shave and haircut so I could get the part. When I showed up for yoga class the next morning with short hair and no beard, Guruji said, “This is correct.” I had to admit it was much cooler.
I was hired to work for three days at about 40 dollars a day, which was a godsend because I was just about out of money. Priscilla and Melissa were also hired, along with their neighbor, Norman, a gay Canadian Sanskrit scholar who would later write the book, “The Yoga of the Mysore Palace. Ironically, Norman was an Iyengar trained yoga teacher living half a block from Guruji. In one of the scenes shot at the Mysore Gun Club Norman was to march down the road in his uniform. Despite a lot of coaching, Norman couldn’t quite get the marching technique down, it was more of a sashay. Finally they gave up and put him on a bicycle. In another scene I was supposed to drive an ancient British car called a Morris into an intersection. I was having a lot of difficulty coordinating the accelerator and the clutch and kept lurching into the scene. Ultimately they decided to have me park the car and stand beside it.
My time in India was coming to an end and I had mixed feelings about leaving. The whole experience had been so magical and fun—I was floating on cloud nine. Guruji and his family had embraced my so warmly and generously that I felt very much at home in Mysore, like a had found my home away from home. My wife and I had exchanged a few letters and I knew that she was missing me and deeply concerned about our future. My stay in Mysore had convinced me that it was my dharma to teach yoga. A few days before my departure, I approached Guruji and asked if it would be possible to get his official blessing to teach yoga—some kind of document perhaps. Guruji considered this for a minute and then nodded. “Yes, Teem, is possible but a little costly.” Guruji informed me that to acquire the document with the special government stamp would require a processing fee of $25. I agreed that this was a little costly, but that I thought it would be a good investment in my future. Guruji told me that being a yoga teacher was a very serious profession—like being a doctor, he said—and that it was basically all about service to your students. I told him I would try to live up to the wonderful example he set.
As I went to say my goodbyes to Guruji and his family I was feeling very emotional. In the space of two and a half months I felt like I had become part of the family. Sarasvati, Sharath, and Sharmi said goodbye and urged me to come back soon. Amma hugged me and called me her “American son.” When I touched Guruji’s feet I felt completely overwhelmed with gratitude. He smiled at me and said, “Thank you very much.” Guruji was planning a visit to the States later in the year, whch would include a visit to Encinitas. I told him I would see him in October. “Yes, see you in October. Happy journey, Teem,” he said.
With some of the money I had earned during my “acting” career I splurged for a ticket on the “luxury bus” to Bangalore. This bus was far less crowded than the red buses and also showed Indian videos with the volume cranked to the maximum through blown speakers. There was a freak rainstorm on the way to Bangalore and I was drenched and somewhat muddy when I reached the airport because the windows of the bus didn’t close. With the last of my money I bought a new shirt in the airport that I could wear on the journey home. As the plane took off I felt both sadness and relief, an experience that became very familiar in 15 subsequent trips to India. There is something so deeply spiritual about India, so exotic and romantic and at the same time so dirty, smelly, chaotic, and sometimes very frustrating that it always evokes a mixed reaction. It’s Heaven and Hell, all rolled into one.